That last night, Jordan slept fitfully. While his tired body clamoured for the peace of slumber, his agitated mind couldn’t surrender the thoughts churning inside. In a seemingly never-ending cycle, his eyelids would grow heavy, would close, and just as the welcoming darkness would begin to assert itself, Jordan would snap awake as a new revelation burst like a firework inside his brain.
Across the carriage, Melvin had no such issues. Even now, his snoring rose and fell in irregular patterns, interrupted every so often with a rough snort. Beneath him, Felipe Belsair snoozed—Jordan couldn’t entertain the notion that a man such as he would actually sleep. Nonetheless, the great man had stirred not a jot for well over four hours. If any of this last minute reorganisation affected him, it certainly didn’t show on the exterior.
Jordan, though, found himself in an entirely different position. It was the first time such a scenario had played out in his life, and he wasn’t entirely sure whether to welcome this heightened state of awareness, or to dismiss it as nervous folly. Sure, the breeding ground for this sleeplessness was the change of plans, but that fundamental notion was nothing new to Jordan. Plans are made to be changed, and several previous plans had been altered mid-mission with nary a thought. You did what was needed to guarantee success, even if it meant pulling the pin entirely and walking away. Despite popular misconception, an assassin’s record of achievement was measured in successes, and not all of these include leaving behind a corpse.
So, what made this mission so unique that Jordan found himself tossing so many disconnected thoughts around inside his mind?
It wasn’t just the fact that Julian was sovereign. Such a concept was indeed moot; after all, beneath the robes of state and the crown perched atop his flowing locks of blonde, Julian was a man. His blood would flow as red as Jordan’s, and a knife drawn across Julian’s throat would render him dead as surely as the next person. No, Jordan had long ago divested himself of the burden of empathy. A crowned prince Julian might be, but from now until the deed was complete, he was just another man.
Then what was the source of this insomnia? Anxiety? No. It wasn’t aspects of the mission that stirred in his head. The plan, though not set in concrete, was satisfactory enough to eliminate undue stress. Even if it involved some spontaneity at Ma’arnar, Jordan was confident of his abilities to adapt. After all, your livelihood as a Black Hood depended on your ability to detect trouble and take necessary evasive action...
...so, why couldn’t he sleep?
His mind kept throwing back images from that final half hour of conversation. He recalled the visage of Belsair in the window, a wraith-like figure floating on a mirrored reproduction of their carriage, speaking softly of impending doom. While the topic itself was reason enough to make Jordan’s flesh crawl—especially delivered as it was by Belsair’s master storytelling—there was only now, some hours after the event, the first niggles of... well, doubt.
The most obvious doubt was the importance of Jordan’s mission. To have so much extraneous weight attached to the mission gave proceedings a surreal feeling that rang warning bells inside Jordan’s head. King Julian’s growing ego was common knowledge to anyone with an ear to the ground; the extent of such growth, though, was somewhat enigmatic, if not outright spurious, at least from the outside looking in. And this, Jordan realised with the sudden giddy sensation of falling from a great height, was the crux of his current misgivings.
To offer insights from the standpoint of a collective consciousness with such powerful insights that Belsair demonstrated, and to attach to these an empathy far removed from that of a casual bystander led Jordan to believe that Belsair’s proximity to a certain Darellion Kraithé was more than their being passing acquaintances. Even the information itself—much less the personal anecdotes of pulling fish from the Ma’arnar River—reeked of a complicity that made Jordan apprehensive. He didn’t think Belsair was pulling the wool over his eyes. But he was more than one hundred percent certain that the Master of the Knife was holding back more information than that Jordan could surmise with his own meagre bank of knowledge.
Jordan was therefore a minion, a position that he hadn’t found himself in since his fledgling days as a Black Hood novice. It was like suddenly finding himself in Melvin’s shoes, minus the inexperience, the puerile braggadocio and the wispy curls of bum fluff on his chin. Part of him rallied against this pseudo-demotion, that obdurate part of his nature that fed off the pride of having worked so hard to get so far. Yet, he also conceded that given the dire nature of the mission,
(your mission has been compromised)
he couldn’t allow his pride to reduce him to the same level as his protégé. Not if he wanted to come out at the other side with his neck unbroken.
Wisdom therefore dictated he toe the line. And while there was a certain level of safety in doing so, he couldn’t help but feel somewhat exposed. After all, he was supposed to put his faith and life into the hands of a person who was, until the last two days, a figment of his imagination. Furthermore, his only colleague was a naïve street urchin who would have felt no compulsion at opening his throat just for the sake of doing so. Even now, they were wending their way towards the largest city in the Empire, the ancestral home of the man they sought to assassinate, a place that was doubtless loyal to their patron, if only to maintain their pre-eminence in a status quo that was very quickly reaching a tipping point.
Each way Jordan chose to view this situation, the odds were long. He was either a lamb being led to the slaughter, or the knifepoint upon which salvation had been vested. The last thing he ever expected to be, though, was a martyr to a cause that, quite frankly, held little personal interest to him. He cared little for the machinations of state, or the liberties of the people. His status outside of society meant that whichever way the supposedly ensuing civil war should fall, he’d come out smelling like roses, unscathed and still capable of garnering meaningful employment. Yet, in less than twenty-four hours, Felipe Belsair had unloaded a raft of concerns that gave the potential knife thrust far more value than Jordan wanted.
He closed his eyes briefly, and the carriage, clothed in shadows, disappeared from view. His world then was blackness filled with the steady chug of the locomotive far out the front of the train and the various creaks and groans of the carriage. Somewhere over this he detected the regular pulse of his heart and the oceanic rise and fall of his breathing. In his mind, the perfect darkness behind closed eyelids became to refocus. He saw colours, an imagined vista of Ma’arnar, seeing as he had never before in his life ventured this far east.
He envisaged narrow cobbled streets and the bustle of multitudes of people. There was a smell, too; an over ripe smell that could have been sewage, but was most likely the noxious vapour from the factories. This mixed with the briny odour of the Eastern Sea and the heavy scent of the river’s estuary to form a terrible concoction that would stab knifelike into Jordan’s brain if it were real.
In this crowded urban sprawl, they walked as a trio: the Master of the Knife taking the lead, with Jordan tailing close behind and Melvin, somewhat the gawking tourist, lagging several paces at the rear. They moved briskly, as was wont in such a place as this, pushing through throngs and jostling as much as they were jostled. Jordan knew that they were heading for the main Palace, but also knew, in this dreamscape, that they would never reach their destination.
Instead, they were destined to walk through endless streets clogged with a surging tide of humanity. All the while, Melvin would gape and gawk, and after sufficiently taking the fill of his wonder, scramble after Belsair and Jordan to catch up with them. It was during one of these escapades that Belsair suddenly stopped, turning his hoary body around in much the same manner as he had when first coming into Jordan’s life, fixing him to the spot with those eyes of slate. For several seconds, the whole world was as quiet as a graveyard; Belsair was moving his lips around words that Jordan couldn’t hear, but as the throngs about him began to move anew, and their sounds washed over him, he realised he didn’t have to hear Belsair’s words. He could understand fully just by lip reading.
“Deliver him to his destiny,” Belsair was saying.
Deliver him to his destiny.